- Most travelers to Hawaii think they need to rent a car to enjoy the islands’ offerings.
- Depending on what you want to do and where you stay, experts say you can actually forgo a rental car and still have a meaningful vacation.
- The key is planning in advance.
When planning a trip, knowing whether to rent a car when visiting Hawaii can be tricky for travelers.
For starters, each of the main Hawaiian Islands is different, not just in population and size but also with unique natural wonders, activities and history. For example, while Oahu is the third-largest island, it’s by far the most populated, with more than seven times the population of Maui, the second-largest island. So things on Maui are more spread out and tend to take longer to get to.
Experts agree that the answer to renting a car or not depends on which island you’re visiting, where you’re staying and what you’re hoping to do there. Thankfully, visiting Hawaii sans car is totally possible – and encouraged.
“To be a respectful visitor, which we really need, you’re going to have (to) dig deep if you’re going to some of the islands and do your research,” Bruce Fisher, a travel adviser for Hawaii Aloha Travel with about 20 years of experience, said. “In general, we’re encouraging people to be more sustainable and akamai (smart) about being here and taking care of our lands.”
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In his experience, people appreciate knowing there are alternatives to renting a car on their trip to Hawaii. Hawaii is also known for having some of the nation’s worst traffic, which can be painfully felt if driving along the scenic but often backed-up one-lane Honoapiilani Highway on Maui.
Jamie Phillips Weese and her family of four were looking into a weeklong trip to Hawaii with visits to Maui and Oahu in early October 2022. They ended up going with a rental car on Maui and traveling by Uber on Oahu.
For their five days on Maui, the family took advantage of the rental car, going grocery shopping and exploring beaches around the island, like West Maui.
“I can’t imagine not renting a car on Maui – the Ubers would be insanely expensive!” Phillips Weese said.
The family also spent two days on Oahu and stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Waikiki Beach Resort. On their first day, they hung out by the resort’s pool and beach, leaving the property only to walk to a nearby restaurant. The next day they took an Uber to Pearl Harbor and had no issues, other than waiting a bit because of traffic.
“The main reason we chose not to rent a car in Oahu is because we knew it would be more populated and cater to tourists,” Phillips Weese told USA TODAY. “We knew we wouldn’t need to, and we also didn’t want the hassle of navigating streets and people in an unfamiliar place with a ton of traffic.” The high parking fee at the resort was also a deterrent.
She said their decision “absolutely saved us time and frustration.”
Is it expensive to rent a car in Hawaii?
The coronavirus pandemic halted tourism in the islands in 2020, and that hit the rental car industry. Once tourism reopened, the demand for rental cars skyrocketed – and so did the cost. People wanting to rent a car in Hawaii saw prices go from about $30 a day to more than $700 in some cases. Some even turned to renting out U-Haul trucks.
As of November, the rental car crisis has since calmed down. “The supply of new cars is growing, but it’s not what it was prior to the pandemic,” Jerry Agrusa, a professor for the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s School of Travel Industry Management, told USA TODAY. “Prices are still at a premium because it’s still a supply shortage.”
According to Tripadvisor, the average cost for a rental car in Hawaii is $157 a day; the cheapest option went for a daily rate of $46.
Oodles of options on Oahu
Getting around Oahu, the most-populated and most-visited island, is easy compared with the others and offers people the most transportation options, like relatively fast rideshares.
“I’ll tell people, generally, on Oahu they don’t need a car unless they have to,” Fisher said.
People who want to stay around Honolulu can use Go Biki bikeshare or the Waikiki Trolley, which has a handful of lines stopping at tourist highlights like Diamond Head and Hanauma Bay, and major hotels in Waikiki, Fisher suggested. The trolley offers one-day, four-day and seven-day passes with unlimited boarding. Unfortunately, these options aren’t available on the other islands.
People can rent a car for one or two days to explore the North Shore from Honolulu. For a car rental with less commitment, Fisher suggested Hui, a round-trip, station-based car service with more than 65 locations across the island – it’s similar to a bikeshare, only with a car.
Should I rent a car if I’m visiting Maui, Kauai or Hawaii Island?
On Maui, Kauai and Hawaii Island, forgoing a rental car isn’t as clear-cut.
“I think that on the outer islands, people still have to have a car to totally enjoy themselves because it’s so much bigger,” Agrusa said.
But people can still enjoy the other islands without having a car the entire time – in fact, you’d save money on parking fees.
“You rent a car for a week; you’re not going to use that car every single day,” Fisher said. To do everything you want, it’s a matter of booking and planning in advance – and supporting local companies.
You can also pick lodging in a walkable area where there are lots of shops and restaurants to cut down on your gas mileage. Think Kaanapali in Maui, Kona in Hawaii Island and Waikiki in Oahu.
Cecil Morton, a longtime business owner of transportation companies in Hawaii, agreed with Fisher, saying that “everyone has an option.”
“They have rental cars, we drive, you drive, shuttle, black car, taxi, and they’re all available and it’s great,” he said.
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Many tours and excursions offer door-to-door transportation for when it’s time to adventure. For example, he said, most people want to visit the scenic and winding Road to Hana on Maui. Morton suggested taking a tour instead of driving yourself, especially since most tours offer transportation to popular hotel, resort and condo areas, (unfortunately, not so much for Airbnbs or lodging in more residential areas) and you can sit back and enjoy. “You can’t look without swerving off the Road to Hana,” he said.
Morton has owned Speedishuttle for the past 23 years, a charter and tour service available on the four main islands and a popular choice for airport transfers. Recently, he launched Holoholo Mobility (holoholo meaning “let’s go cruising” in Hawaiian), a locally owned rideshare company that has no surge pricing compared with Uber or Lyft. Holoholo launched within the past year and has over 100 drivers of different classes, like luxury sedans or SUVs, across the state. To encourage sustainability among its drivers and riders, Holoholo also incentivizes drivers with more money if they drive a hybrid or electric car but doesn’t add extra cost to the rider.
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“We’re talking about supporting local,” Morton said. “Is it Uber and Lyft? Absolutely not. Will it be? Absolutely not.”
Although available on the four main Hawaiian islands, Uber was unable to provide data to USA TODAY on how many drivers are on each island. On Hawaii Island, Maui and Kauai, Agrusa noted there aren’t many drivers available, so it often won’t be the cheapest or fastest option.
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For the cheapest ride option, each island also offers its own public bus transportation system. All have routes to their respective airports and reach the majority of their respective islands. While Oahu has the biggest bus transit system, Hawaii Island’s Hele-On bus offers fare-free rides for everybody. Just plan for your journey to err on the longer side.
According to Fisher, there’s also the idea of taking advantage of your resort and its amenities (after all, they’re designed to keep you satisfied staying on the property). Just book an airport shuttle to and from your resort, or see if your resort offers a free shuttle of its own.
People can “limit (their) footprint” and “spend more time on the beach or hiking or doing things that are closer to your resort experience, and I think you can still have a meaningful vacation.”
Do you like to rent a car whenever you travel? How do you navigate a new place?